Comic companies usually don’t take too many left-field creative chances with their flagship titles, but for a glorious few years in the mid-90s, that’s exactly what DC Comics did with the main Batman title.
The Knightfall saga had seen The Dark Knight crippled by Bane before being replaced by the former-Azrael (and increasingly psychotic) Jean-Paul Valley, a more modern take on the superhero who felt no qualms about killing criminals. As the series rumbled on through Knightquest and Knightsend, Valley was deposed as Bruce Wayne reclaimed the mantle of the Bat, setting up a new beginning for the character.
Okay, he immediately buggered off again to let Dick Grayson take over as Batman, but we can gloss over that.
Putting someone else in the cowl was one thing, but it was what DC did next that was really interesting.
Kelley Jones was no stranger to the Bat-titles due to his work with Doug Moench on the Batman-as-vampire graphic novel Red Rain, as well as a solid run on cover duties throughout the Knightfall era. Taking over the main title though? That was a huge jump, with Jones’s exaggerated and often horrific style a million miles away from the straight spandex art that readers had been used to, but it was an editorial decision that would lead to one of the most fertile and imaginative periods in Batman’s long history.
Kelley said: “I had done an inventory cover at the request of Archie Goodwin. Archie loved it and thought I did a very nice take Batman and asked if I could do some Batman work for him when my schedule allowed. I said absolutely! Archie then asked Denny O’Neil, with whom I was working as to what his plans were for me. Denny said he was going to ask me to draw Batman monthly, as he also thought I did an original take. Archie gave me a heads up and said to me to do it, so a few weeks later I took the job. Doug Moench wasn’t pleased, as he wanted to do more graphic novels and such. On the other hand, if I stuck with the hectic schedule of a monthly, he would write the stories he always wanted to write and we had a chance to do something special. I promised to do what ever it took to make him happy.”
Beginning in issue 515, the combination of Moench, Jones and inker John Beatty (forevermore known as Da Boyz) made an immediate impact and coincided with the appearance of a new costume for Batman across all titles, an all-black number that suited Jones’ darker style perfectly.
Moench’s often dark writing style found the perfect foil in Kelley Jones. Under his pen, Batman truly became a creature of the night, a snarling demon that would terrify anyone, not just the superstitious and cowardly criminal element. The ears of the cowl were extended to Satanic horn levels, while that famous cape became almost a living entity in itself, a billowing mass of no fixed size or shape that Jones would often extend beyond all realism for even just a single panel before pulling it back in.
Gotham City was redesigned to reflect this new approach too, with the already dark city turning into a gargoyle-lined maze of narrow cobbled alleys, crooked spires and overhanging windows. It may have been set in modern America, but it looked like more middle-ages Eastern Europe by way of Hieronymus Bosch.
”Batman is the most frightening, intimidating and relentless character in comics.” says Jones. “I felt fear is the main weapon he has and uses it at every opportunity. To everyone in Gotham, he is thought of as one of the crazies, the bat signal is a warning, not a call, so I wanted him less heroic and more a borderline supernatural figure.”
That borderline would be pushed to the limit time and again, with this new Batman inhabiting a Batcave that looked straight out of James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, all creepy shadows and vintage mad science technology, while the rogues gallery was given a macabre makeover by Da Boyz, emphasising the insanity and unsettling elements of Arkham inmates like The Joker, Two Face and Killer Croc. Batman’s villains have always been bordering on the horrific, but Moench and Jones turned them into monsters.
If Batman was now a borderline supernatural creature, it stood to reason that his opposite numbers would be equally upgraded and Jones clearly relished the work, turning in a regular stream of some of the most disturbing takes on the characters readers had ever seen. Jones’ twisted enthusiasm for these bizarre characters drips off every page. “I loved drawing Mr Freeze and Man-Bat, Two-Face as well and of course Scarecrow was really fun.” says Jones.
It wasn’t just the usual suspects cropping up that made this run so special either. Regular guest-stars allowed Moench to take both Batman and the reader out of their comfort zone. A chase with Killer Croc ends with a confrontation with the Swamp Thing, while The Joker attempts devil worship and gets Etrigan instead. One of the more striking examples came when a South American adventure with Deadman allowed Moench to experiment with the form of comics themselves, creating a long text piece conversation that was only framed by Jones’ art, a trick he would pull again in the later Man-Bat story.
The writer’s fascination with edgy subjects such as mind control, identity and government conspiracies had first reared it’s head on his seminal Moon Knight run with Bill Sienkiewicz, but here he took those concepts and ran with them. While a classic villain was never far from the pages, Moench brought in new adversaries such as Sleeper and The Ogre in stories that were a paranoid’s worst nightmare, one where the government was as much of a threat as any supervillain.
As dark and twisted as it all got, neither Moench or Jones were veer asked to reign it in, instead being given free reign to take it as far out there as they saw fit, a relaxed editorial stance that Jones is still appreciative for.
He said: “I had a lot of freedom. I was asked to do my ‘thing’ and so I did. Also, with Doug Moench at the helm, there were a lot of obstacles removed just by his presence. Doug wrote his best stories then and felt it was coming out well on the finished art, so he was protective of my stuff on Batman. The only compromises I was asked to make were on the costume. He was then wearing a black outfit, not the grey, but I felt it didn’t affect the book.”
One thing that did affect the book though, was the dreaded crossover. The DC of the ‘90s were obsessed with cross-pollination and it was a rare book that didn’t start or finish a story somewhere else on a fairly regular basis. Fortunately, this was kept to a minimum on the Moench and Jones run, with crossovers only happening occasionally and kept within the Bat-family of titles, such as on the plague in Gotham epic Contagion and its shorter sequel Legacy. Smartly, when one of the big line-wide crossovers cropped up, Moench just referenced them tangentially and told stories he wanted to tell anyway, such as Mr Freeze’s appearance in the Underworld Unleashed chapter, or the Final Night story featuring Man-Bat and yes, more government conspiracy.
Kelley said: “I didn’t like doing event crossovers, would beg off them. Doug’s stories were just pure Batman .One and dones, two-parters and all with his great paranoid film noir take. I was spoiled drawing them. We as a team only contributed the one issue to a crossover, a chapter of the Contagion story, and Doug wrote it so well that it fit in our strange run perfectly”
A strange run is the perfect way to describe it. Not just in Jones’ love of the macabre and uncanny, or Moench’s obsession with the government, but even in the smaller moments, the human moments away from the madness, this was Batman at its strangest. A new love interest for Bruce Wayne was introduced in the shape of Vesper Fairchild, while a mysterious other woman named Madolynn Corbett made regular uninvited appearances in his life, but even matters of romance, there was always an undercurrent of the wrong, that this was a world of deception and nothing was ever as it seems.
Naturally, a book as stylised and unusual as this wasn’t for everyone, but it quickly found its audience and actually increased the already not-unsubstantial sales that the Batman title had been used to.
Kelley said: “The reaction to our run was tremendous. Fan-mail (pre internet days!) jumped from a hundred or so a month to six to seven hundred a month. The book became their best seller, even jumping ahead of Superman. Not only that, it was critically very well regarded as well. I always thought it stood out because it was such a creatively honest effort.”
For three glorious years, the most interesting comic on the shelves was Jones, Moench and Beatty’s Batman, but it wasn’t to last. The high-ups at DC had let Da Boyz play in their own private sandbox for long enough and wanted to bring the flagship Batman title back into the fold, but knowing the lack of creative freedom that would bring with it, the team quit.
Kelley said: “After three years of our wild run, DC wanted to tie Batman back to the other Bat-titles. They informed me it was a non-negotiable point, but that they did want me to continue to pencil it for two more years. I just couldn’t see myself and Doug doing anything that would be as good as what we had just done, so I very sadly resigned, thanked DC very much for letting me draw the book and hung up the phone. That was a hard day, let me tell you.”
The suddenness of this decision meant that plot strands the team had been building up were dropped, none more so than The Puppeteer. Planned as Moench’s “arch villain”, the character had only appeared in the occasional panel over the course of the run, appearances so subtle you could have mistaken them for just another creepy piece of detail by Jones, but there was more to him than met the eye.
”The Puppeteer was to be our big story for the fourth year” Kelley said. “It was going to be our personal take on the ‘Event Comic’” Still unfinished, we know that Moench and Jones had big plans for this character and if DC has any sense, maybe someday we’ll finally see just what these masters of the macabre had up their sleeves.
Speaking of DC, despite the run being long-regarded one of the true classics by fans, it’s only recently been collected in trade, with a gorgeous hardcover of their first 18 issues exposing their talent to a whole new generation while being snapped up by older fans keen to see the work in a deluxe format.
While he’s delighted to see his work finally collected, Kelley is under no illusions why it took so long. He said: “The stories in our run were not connected to any others, so they weren’t probably deemed necessary. I was touched at how much effort DC put into the reprinted edition, so I was very pleased with it. The hardcover sold out the week it was released and sold several thousand copies. There will be a volume two.”
Batman has always been a creature of the night, but under the evil eye of Doug Moench, Kelley Jones and John Beatty, the character and the title itself became something else, something much more disturbing, but completely fascinating at the same time. Over two decades later, the title is still DC’s shining light, but for three wonderful years, it was the shadows that made Batman so special.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy